Sunday, April 04, 2010

Year of 25 Books: #5 - The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman is pretty beloved around our house, if for no other reason than family favorite Coraline came from his pen. He is one of Heidi's favorite authors and American Gods is her favorite book. I enjoyed Coraline as well and also was fond of Neverwhere and his Sandman graphic novels, but beyond that, my exposure to his writing has mostly been secondhand. The Graveyard Book has been sitting on the shelf for a long time (Heidi read it long ago) and I thought it was high time I gave this one a whirl as well.

In The Graveyard Book, a young toddler is miraculously spared when the rest of his family is gruesomely murdered. He wanders into the neighborhood graveyard where he is promptly adopted by its ghostly inhabitants. Given the name Nobody "Bod" Owens, he grows up in the graveyard, mentored by a mysterious figure named Silas and sheltered by everyone there because the man who killed his family is patiently waiting to finish the job.

The Graveyard Book won the Newbery Medal for children's literature in 2009, so I was expecting great things. Ultimately, I didn't really connect with this book very much and consequently, it was a very slow read for me. The characters were rich and well drawn, especially Bod, and the menagerie of ghosts in the graveyard, which could have easily blurred together, had distinct personalities. But where I felt the book suffered was in its execution. It read less like a novel and more like a series of anecdotes that happened to involve the same characters with only loose connections between the events. Gaiman took a lot of inspiration from The Jungle Book when writing this, and while I have not read that, I would imagine that the structure is similar. But for me, it didn't provide me with a satisfying reading experience. I also took great issue with the last chapter in which all is explained in a bit of a haphazard way with not much build up. It was almost as if Gaiman realized he needed to write an ending and just grabbed for something, whether it made sense or provided a sense of closure for the reader.

However, all is not lost. While I didn't like the slapdash way the book ended from a plot perspective, I did like the emphasis placed on personal change in the book, especially at the end. Bod grows from a baby to a young man throughout the book, and as the book draws to a close, one of the ghosts tells Bod "You're always you and that doesn't change, and you're always changing and there's nothing you can do about it." These are wise and true words even though they seem to be contradictory. They really resonated with me because the older I get, the more I realize that although I am certainly not the same as I was 10 or 20 years ago, I believe that so much of who we are as adults is hardwired into us from an early age. Most of what we pay therapists hundreds of dollars to help us work out are really just old wounds that we need to pay attention to and be aware of. You can't really change those, but it is important to come to terms with them and understand them. This comes in especially handy when current events lay themselves over the top of those old wounds. We can't change them, and we really can't change how we react (again, thank you hardwiring) but just being aware of that is change. Change is both impossible and inevitable. It's as contradictory as the quote from the book.

The Graveyard Book is probably about a 3 and a-half star book for me. It wasn't really for me on the whole, but there were parts I enjoyed. If you enjoy short stories involving common characters, you'll probably enjoy this book. I just wish the emotional pay-off at the end had packed a little bit more of a punch.

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